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LeBron Opens Up His Own Finishing School In Northeast Ohio

With LeBron James going home, the Cleveland Cavaliers' odds for a title are up to 9/2. It's an ambitious goal for next season, but they do have a stunning amount of talent. They could start a No. 1 overall pick at four positions - Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, LeBron and Anthony Bennett. Kyrie is 22, Bennett is 21 and Wiggins is 19. If they allow those three to grow next to LeBron, all they have to do is find a C. There's no rush - this could be the start of something special.

LeBron is not headed for a steep decline. At 6'9 260, he's one of the biggest and most skilled players in the league and he turns 30 in December. He can be a starter on an elite team for another decade - Karl Malone started on a team that went to the NBA Finals at 40. As long as LeBron stays healthy, the window is open. Instead of doing everything to maximize winning a championship over the next 2-3 seasons, they could try to win titles for the next decade.

If you were trying to win right away, the move would be to trade for Kevin Love. They could start with an offer of Bennett and Dion Waiters, but they would probably need to include Wiggins. The problem is that it would be hard to give up on a guy like Wiggins so early in his career. In 7-8 years, Wiggins will be the same age as Love as is now. When LeBron starts to enter his late 30's, Wiggins could conceivably be the guy he hands the reigns of the franchise too.

That’s what the end game could be for LeBron - not to bring one title to Cleveland, but to bring a franchise that could compete for titles well into the future. When LeBron watched the San Antonio Spurs dismantle the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, he saw what to strive for. He grabbed the best players of his generation four years ago - this time around, he's trying to get the best players of the next generation. This is his chance to be on a franchise like the Spurs.

If he stayed in Miami, he would have constantly been in a race against time. He's already watched Wade decline in front of his eyes and Bosh is beginning the downswing of his career. The Heat didn't have a lot of young talent and not much cap space to add more. They would have been getting worse every year and LeBron couldn’t stem the tide alone. In Cleveland, the tide is reversed. As he gets older, all the young guys around him will be getting better.

There are questions about the other No. 1 overall picks, but they would all be so much better next to LeBron. The same can be said for Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson - LeBron could get all these guys careers on the right track. To me, the idea should be as much size, athleticism and shooting ability around LeBron as possible, which means Wiggins, at 6'8 200 with a 7'0 wingspan, and Bennett, at 6'8 240 with a 7'1 wingspan, as the two guys next to him.

After the draft, Cavs GM David Griffin said he saw Wiggins as a big SG, where he has a dramatic size and athletic advantage over everyone he would face. The problem was that unless he was playing with a wing who was even bigger and more athletic than him, he would always get the opposing team's longest and most athletic perimeter defender anyway. Next to LeBron, that problem is solved. The potential of LeBron and Wiggins on the wings is absurd.

Waiters has the chance to be a very good player in this league, but he's a smaller SG who takes the ball out of Wiggins hands and push him down a spot in the line-up. Thompson, meanwhile, doesn't fit the way the NBA is going - he's an undersized power forward who can't protect the rim or shoot 3's. Waiters and Thompson would both be best suited for reserve roles, which means Cleveland could have a team with two No. 4 picks coming off the bench.

Bennett is another guy whose career could be transformed next to LeBron. As a combo forward, he was trapped between positions a bit, but that’s no big deal when you are playing with one of the most versatile defenders of all-time. He has lost a lot of weight, which was one of the main things holding him back in his disastrous rookie season. If he can shoot like he did at UNLV, he would be very overqualified in the role of Shane Battier or Rashard Lewis.

The main questions about Kyrie are his defense and distribution, but that’s no longer an issue. He can play the Mario Chalmers role, spotting up off the ball and living off the attention LeBron draws. To give a scorer that gifted so many open shots is almost unfair. One thing that made LeBron so deadly in Miami was his ability to get guys like Mike Miller rhythm 3's - an elite shooter is not going to miss often when can set his feet and get a good look at the basket.

The biggest concern is at center, the one position where they don't have a No. 1 overall pick. Anderson Varejao is a good player, but he doesn't give them a lot of size or rim protection, which could end up being their Achilles heel in the playoffs. With so many young guys next to LeBron, they will need a guy who can clean up mistakes. Whether it's dealing some combination of Waiters and Thompson or it's cap space in the next few years, they need to find a two-way center.

There are an awful lot of ifs between the Cavs and being a perennial title contender, but that's why LeBron is there. As he said in his open letter, he can make their young guys better. There wasn't anything he could teach Wade and Bosh - they were his peers. Kyrie, Wiggins, Bennett, Waiters, Thompson - these are guys who were in middle school and high school when he entered the NBA. LeBron could pay it forward in Cleveland and reap a tremendous reward.

In essence, he could run the best finishing school in the NBA, sacrificing the front end of his second stint with the Cavs to extend out the back. Tim Duncan is winning titles at 38 because he is playing with guys in their early 30's and 20's - you stay young by surrounding yourself with younger players. And if the Cavs become the Spurs, it's because LeBron was Duncan and Gregg Popovich in one person. That's what’s on the table for him in Cleveland.

The Human Element

Through five years of covering the NBA as a credentialed member of the media, numerous people have asked for my biggest take-away from the experience. My answer has always been the same: despite all the incredible feats we see on the court, spending time in locker rooms shows the human side of the players. These are people that can do things I could never dream of doing myself but they also have egos and insecurities, pride and obligations that loom large even in their surreal lives.

Four years ago, the joining of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami stood as the final signpost on the road from elite athletes having intense rivalries to a more interconnected and businesslike league. After The Decision in 2010, I attributed some of this to the rise of AAU basketball and the simple fact that current NBA players have spent so much more time playing both with and against elite talents across the country from a young age and forged friendships then and later with connections though agents and endorsements. The pride and animosity that loomed so large in the 80’s and 90’s lives largely in the rear view mirror.

Heck, we saw Ray Allen jump from the Celtics to his biggest rival’s team for the better opportunity and he may do it again soon. The best players in the sport have transitioned from supermen to businessmen to being a business, man, at the same time the league as a whole transitioned from family owned teams to major enterprises. Like it or not, this NBA should be around for a long, long time.

Amazingly enough, the owners' intense overreaction to what Miami accomplished in 2010 fueled this homecoming as well. By effectively eliminating extensions as a logical path for elite free agents, the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement ensured that LeBron James would test the market as an unrestricted free agent- this summer would look very different with the old CBA’s extension system. While Cleveland would have held intrigue anyway because of its place in LeBron’s heart, a streak of insanely good fortune peaking at the perfect time made it the right basketball decision as well. It took a miracle to get LeBron out of Cleveland and took a miracle to get him back. While I think LeBron would have looked seriously at the Cavs regardless of what happened in the draft, his hometown team winning the lottery and securing the No. 1 pick substantially narrowed the talent gap in the short and long terms. Whether the Cavs keep Wiggins or use him to acquire Kevin Love, the team added a difference-maker in a way that would not have been feasible from the No. 9 slot.

In case they needed even more luck, the Cavs also got help from Father Time and the CBA. Despite their great success the past four seasons, Miami had peaked because of the limitations put in place in the new CBA. Unless two or more of the Big Three took gargantuan paycuts, the best they could do in terms of additions were the mid-level each season and praying a flier or two worked out. The increased value of first round picks meant buying into the 20-30 range would be unlikely and the success rate of second rounders has been dubious even in strong drafts. Barring the unforeseen, the Heat would have been lucky to be a top five team in the league the next two years even if LeBron ages gracefully despite still being the favorites to make it out of the decrepit Eastern Conference. Even though Cleveland’s roster carries more unknowns and far less experience, they have a championship ceiling now and that was enough to turn the tide.

As much as the basketball part of the equation mattered, Cleveland had advantages that no other city could match. Even in the NBA, few players have ever repped a city and area harder than LeBron James. Even after the wake of emotional destruction after The Decision, he maintained a summer residence in Akron and a meaningful connection with the area. Northeast Ohio meant a great deal to LeBron and his inner circle. I got the feeling a long time ago that all Cleveland had to do was get close- my pessimism was always that even with Nick Gilbert the human good luck charm the Cavs could not stay out of their own way long enough to make it a fair fight. To the credit of David Griffin and the lottery gods, they did.

While wonderful tools like the Trade Checker and the NBA2K video games help us enjoy the Association in different and engaging ways, they also obscure the undeniable truth that basketball players are human beings with their own motivations and priorities. Pat Riley and the Heat did an excellent job on the aggregate bringing LeBron into the fold and adding enough quality pieces to put together an incredible four year run- no one should diminish the difficulty of making four straight NBA finals and repeating as champions. Despite all their talent and star power. Miami never suffered from the “Disease of More” their architect coined more than thirty-five years ago. They were just vanquished by good fortune like what brought The King to South Beach in the first place.

Sometimes the human element can just be too much to overcome.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

The problem with most mock drafts, especially early in the draft process, is the butterfly effect. If just one team in the lottery makes a surprise selection, it causes a chain reaction up and down the board that renders a lot of the previous speculation useless. At this point, I think it’s more useful to look at what each team in the lottery needs and what will be going into their decision-making process. With that in mind, here’s a quick sketch of one way it could go. 

1) Cleveland Cavaliers - Joel Embiid 

This is from David Griffin’s interview with ESPN last night - “I think we need to get a better fit for our roster. We’ve got an awful lot of talent and we just need to find the pieces that can serve as a conduit to make it gel.” That screams Embiid to me. When you have Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, the last thing you need is another perimeter player who needs the ball. That core needs interior defense and post scoring, which are Embiid’s two strengths.

2) Milwaukee Bucks - Jabari Parker

If Cleveland takes Embiid, some combination of Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum go in the next three picks. It’s hard to go wrong with any of them and when you have multiple elite prospects on the board, you have to look at how they fit with the players already on your roster. In other words, which one makes the most sense playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo? I want an explosive scorer who can stretch the floor next to him, which would be Parker. 

3) Philadelphia 76ers - Andrew Wiggins

This would be a great fit for Wiggins, a guy who is more comfortable in transition than playing in the half court at this stage of his career. The one thing I wonder about with Wiggins and the 76ers is that he’s not the pick if you are going by advanced statistics. Here’s the PER of lottery picks from Kansas in the last two seasons - 28.2 (Embiid), 23.2 (Ben McLemore), 21.4 (Wiggins). He’s a guy you take based off the eye test and projecting future ability, not the data.

4) Orlando Magic - Dante Exum 

Orlando will be happy to take whoever falls to them, but Exum is the best fit with the players on their roster. At 6’6 195 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s a big guard who can run point, which would allow him to cross-switch with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt. Taking Exum would free up Oladipo to hound smaller guards on defense and hunt for his own shot on offense. In a best-case scenario, those two would become Orlando’s version of John Wall and Bradley Beal. 

5) Utah Jazz - Aaron Gordon 

If the draft plays out this way, Utah at No. 5 would be one of the big swing picks in the lottery, as they would have first choice on a run of power forwards. Most people have Noah Vonleh and Julius Randle rated ahead of Gordon, but if they take one of those guys, they would have to go back to the two-post system they went away from this season. Gordon is going to be an incredible pick-and-roll player and he would allow them to play 4-out with Derrick Favors at the 5. 

6) Boston Celtics - Noah Vonleh 

In this scenario, Boston would have their pick of two fairly similar PF’s in Vonleh and Randle, which could be one of the more interesting debates in this draft. If you are going with the stats and collegiate success, you have to look at Randle, who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds on 50% shooting and lead Kentucky to the national title game. If you are looking at it from a tools perspective, Vonleh is the better outside shooter and he has much longer arms. 

7) Los Angeles Lakers - Julius Randle

I hate to say this about a guy from Dallas, but Randle is the guy I would not want in the Top 7-8 picks. He will put up a lot of stats, but he doesn’t project as a great shooter or a great defensive player and I want my PF to do one of those two things. Given the amount of shots and minutes that could be up for grabs in the Lakers frontcourt, Randle would have a real shot at Rookie of the Year, but I don’t think his ceiling is as high as a lot of these other guys. 

8) Sacramento Kings - Marcus Smart 

Smart is one of the wild cards in the lottery - there’s a pretty high range of where he could go. It’s hard to see him sneaking into the Top 5 and if he doesn’t go to either the Lakers the Kings, the teams picking after them don’t really need a PG. Smart offers a lot of line-up versatility, as he can play as a SG next to Isaiah Thomas or a PG next to Ben McLemore, but the Kings are an interior defender away from being a solid team, so I wonder if they would reach here. 

9) Charlotte Hornets - Nik Stauskas 

This seems like the first spot where Doug McDermott could come off the board. Charlotte desperately needs outside shooting and they have the personnel to hide McDermott on defense. However, if they are committed to Cody Zeller at the 4 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the 3, Stauskas would be the more logical pick. He’s just as good a shooter as McDermott and he’s a much better passer who has the ability to run the pick-and-roll and create shots for others.

10) Philadelphia 76ers - Doug McDermott 

Philadelphia could go in a number of different directions, depending on who they take at No. 3. McDermott, for example, would make a lot more sense next to Wiggins than Parker. Wiggins can defend multiple positions and McDermott can’t defend any while McDermott’s shooting ability would open up the floor for Wiggins and Carter-Williams to attack the rim. I prefer players with more two-way ability, but he could score a lot of points walking into transition 3’s in Philly.

11) Denver Nuggets - Jusuf Nurkic 

If Brian Shaw wants to run more offense out of the low post, Nurkic makes a lot of sense. At 6’11 280 with a 7’2 wingspan, Nurkic is a 19-year old who is already big enough to score over most NBA centers. He comes into the league with a pretty solid post game and he moves well for a player with his mammoth size. He’s not getting up and down the court particularly fast, so taking him would represent a complete turning of the page from George Karl’s small ball style.

12) Orlando Magic - Adreian Payne 

If the Magic go with a perimeter player at No. 4, they will probably want to look at a front-court player at No. 12. Nik Vucevic is entrenched at center, but he isn’t much of a shot-blocker, so that’s a huge need in terms of how they are going to build their roster. I’m surprised at how far Payne is sliding in some of these mocks. He is a legitimate stretch 4 with elite athletic ability who has the ability to play interior defense and rebound - that’s exactly what Orlando needs.

13) Minnesota Timberwolves - Gary Harris 

Minnesota was a perfect example of the problems with fielding a line-up of one-way players. Nik Pekovic, Kevin Love and Kevin Martin are all poor defenders, while Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer are both poor outside shooters. The result was a group that was worse than the sum of its parts. Harris doesn’t have the upside of a guy like LaVine, but he’s a safer pick who will instantly make the Wolves a better team on both sides of the ball. 

14) Phoenix Suns - Zach LaVine

I’m going to put the Suns as the floor for LaVine. They have three first-round picks in this draft, so they will be willing to roll the dice on a guy with as much pure ability as anyone on the board. He didn’t do much in his one season at UCLA, but he’s a 6’5 180 with a 6’8 wingspan, he can jump out of the gym, he has unlimited range on his jumper and he can handle the ball like a PG. LaVine has a chance to be a special player in the type of uptempo system the Suns run.

On Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland's Favorite Son

Zydrunas Ilgauskas choosing to live in Cleveland in retirement is why nobody questioned retiring his jersey even if the rest of the nation raised a cocked eyebrow for honoring a historically mid-level talent. Heís the most beloved Cleveland athlete of the last 25 years, with only Indians great Jim Thome in the argument.

Why It's Too Early To Write Off Anthony Bennett

Anthony Bennett admitted to be being "as surprised as anyone else" when he was drafted first overall by the Cavaliers and the start of his rookie season demonstrated why. The undersized power forward is gradually starting to show flashes of the athletic talent that made him look like a lottery pick last June.

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

Why The Cavaliers' Model Continues To Setup Failure

The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.

Fix It: Cleveland Cavaliers

While the Cavaliers may lose a lot of games again this year, it is not for lack of trying, as they have paired their high draft selections with quality free agents in order to propel themselves toward the playoffs. They may not make it this year, but this teamís time is coming.

C.J. Miles Enjoying Shooting Role On Young Cavaliers

C.J. Miles is off to the best start of his career, averaging over 13 points and supplying Mike Brown with a potent shooter to surround Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack. The Cavaliers held an option on the final year of Milesí deal this season, but exercising it was a formality and heís cozied into playing part in the teamís core.

The Marquee Non-National Teams To Watch

While there are no direct criteria, my non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Top-Five 2nd-Favorite Teams

In an NBA so rich with talent and intriguing storylines, how can you limit yourself to just one team? These five squads deserve second billing in your hearts and remote-holding hands.

Cavaliers' 2014 Salary Cap Outlook

This season should provide the Cavaliers with plenty of opportunities to analyze the talent they have on roster, which will be necessary since they will need to make some tough calls if they want to preserve enough cap space to sign LeBron James outright.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

Cavaliers Moving Past Being Defined By LeBron's Departure

The luck of the lottery, combined with the Cavaliers' young talent has made the ending with James easier to move on from. These days, the disappointment of that situation is a memory more than a motivating factor for Cleveland.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

The Lottery Lowdown

We have seen a whole lot of changes since the pre-Tournament issue of the Lottery Lowdown. March Madness gave us a few players to watch both this year and for 2014 while the Nike Hoop Summit and Combine helped clarify the picture in terms of athletic ability and positional versatility.

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